Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Zimbabwe National Youth Service and the 2008 Election: Lessons for the National Service Community

In recent days, the political climate in Zimbabwe has continued to deteriorate, as hopes for a peaceful democratic transition have been dashed. Last week, in the face of growing violence and repression, opposition leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the Presidential Election Runoff between himself and President Robert Mugabe. Although election monitoring is not typically within ICP’s purview, the role of the faulty Zimbabwe National Youth Service (NYS) in a campaign of state-sponsored repression and violence against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change clearly necessitates ICP’s comment.

Zimbabwe’s National Service Act of 1979 created rules for who could be incorporated into the Zimbabwe National Youth Service and the military; however, it was not until 2001 that a formal NYS program was created. The Service was created as an alternative to school for 10-30 year-olds and was intended to be a gateway to national economic and social development. The Zimbabwe National Youth Policy states in part that,
“It is acknowledged that the development of young people in Zimbabwe requires the involvement of different groups and sectors. The National Youth Policy, therefore provides a means whereby these different sectors (Government, Non-Government, Community, and Private) as well as young people themselves, can work together to achieve common goals.”
However, the function of Zimbabwe’s NYS has diverged from its mission as stated in the 1979 Service Act. For example, many of the camps have been shown to be centers for political indoctrination and military training that serve as a pipeline to the ruling party militias, called the Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Zimbabwean youth are drawn to NYS by the promise and advantage of better work opportunities, as many jobs only consider candidates with NYS alumni status. However once in the NYS camps, many members encounter brutal conditions and are coerced into learning military skills.1 According to The 2008 Child Soldiers Report published by The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers,
“Training centres provided militia training in a 120-day program for 1,000 young people at a time, although numbers declined as the economic and food crisis intensified in the country. Several thousand children and young persons had received training by March 2007. Training focused on paramilitary skills and political education, and allegedly included torture and killing techniques. It was reported that girls were repeatedly raped by other trainees and staff.”
Rather than contribute to the socioeconomic development of the nation, ZANU-PF sponsored groups have been used in order to intimidate, injure and kill political rivals since as early as the 2002 Presidential election. Firsthand accounts, verified that “uniformed graduates of the youth service” perpetrated violence against opposition political supporters. This trend has continued up until present, as the ruling party has continued to use the NYS to perpetrate acts of aggression towards political rivals and supporters. According to the 2008 Child Soldiers Report,
“Youth militia, as well as ruling-party supporters and the army, were used to intimidate the opposition in the 2005 elections. Youth militias were also deployed in “Operation Sunrise”, in which they harassed motorists and commuters when a new currency was introduced in 2006. Violence involving youth militia intensified from March 2007, with reports of beatings, abductions and arbitrary detention targeting opposition figures. Militias were used to enforce price controls, especially from mid-2007 in “Operation Reduce Prices”, when youth militias were sent to enforce price reductions of 50 per cent by supermarkets, shops and stalls. Allegations of political intimidation and attacks on opposition supporters, forced displacement, killings, torture, rape and the destruction of property by members of ZANU–PF youth militias continued up to the end of 2007.”
Not surprisingly, this violence has carried over to the hotly contested 2008 election—during the time between the disputed outcome and the resultant runoff, at least 80 opposition supporters have been killed and 10,000 people injured as well as twice as many homes destroyed, and over 200,000 displaced by the violence. This has culminated in the withdrawal of opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai from the race citing danger to both the survival of his party, The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and his supporters. Tsvangirai was quoted as saying, "Zimbabweans . . . have withstood years of brutality, impoverishment and intimidation. But we in the MDC cannot ask them to cast their votes on June 27 when that vote could cost them their lives."

The Zimbabwean Ministry of Youth Development and Employment Creation has denied opposition accusations that its members have participated in and helped organize the recent political violence. They maintain that NYS programs instill patriotism, discipline and self esteem in the members and are much like the National Youth Service programs in the US and other western countries. However, what separates Zimbabwean NYS from effective youth service programs like AmeriCorps and the South African NYS is the methodology used for reaching these goals.

National Youth Service as a concept is vastly different from what the Zimbabwean government has applied in practice. Innovations in Civic Participation defines National Youth Service as “A civilian program in which young people spend several months meeting local communities’ needs in exchange for minimal financial compensation. National youth service programs provide young people with training, essential self-knowledge, skills, and hands-on experience.” National Youth Service in the Zimbabwean context means service towards the support of the ruling party resulting often in violent action to suppress opposition politics, which itself is a violation of the human rights that youth civic engagement is meant to express.

The National Youth Service (NYS) of Zimbabwe is a corruption of the ideals of National Youth Service. Civic engagement is meant to be constructive, yet the actions of the Zimbabwean NYS are divisive, counterproductive and have corrupted at least a generation of young men and women—teaching them that fear and violence are the way to achieve change.

International experts fear that the rampant political indoctrination and militarization occurring in Zimbabwe will lead to ethnic cleansing and civil war. NYS programs require effective oversight, funding and participation to achieve positive changes for countries and for young and eager participants. NYS is meant to promote positive and active engagement to improve society and hold leadership accountable. The Zimbabwean NYS has achieved the opposite, through youth engagement in ways that rupture the fabric of society and support the ruling doctrine. Youth Service should serve as an environment for the incubation of one’s own political ideals, cultivated around an understanding of shared fate and community responsibility.

Zimbabwe’s problems prove how powerful youth groups can be. When this collective strength and eagerness is harnessed correctly, important community building can result. However, when they are formed with ulterior motives, for political indoctrination or as a militaristic youth corps, NYS groups become powerful tools against community building, inclusive government and peaceful society—fighting against the very goals of youth service and service-learning initiatives across the world.

1 Rejoice Shumba’s “Social Identities in the National Youth Service of Zimbabwe” is an extensive exploration of how exactly the Zimbabwean NYS operates.

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